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I am from Asia and I am writing a reference letter for my student for PhD applications to US universities.

Given the culture differences, I am afraid that I may write too conservative and hurt my student's chances, and it seems there are many ways that the letters looks good but may be viewed as bad in committee, or letters that are good, but not great. My question is, what are the common pitfalls for this, and can I avoid them, so that I won't write a letter that is good but not great, even if I actually want to write a great letter for the student?

I tried to be specific about my student's contribution to show that they have good research ability.

Here are some points I found, are they really true, do I have to/should follow this advice?

  1. I saw some online material suggesting that I should write it very strong to be viewed as positive, like "they are a rising star in XXX, and it will certainly be a tremendous loss for your program if you don't admit them." Is it really true that I should write in this way so that it is a good reference letter? I feel it is really impolite to say so.

  2. It seems some terms must be used so that the letter is strong, such as 'I support them' vs 'I wholeheartedly support them' and 'I believe they have a strong research potential' vs 'I firmly believe they have a strong research potential'. Is it really true?

  3. I also saw some comments saying although some letters appear to be good, they actually aren't because the letter's writer clearly doesn't want to have any business with the student any more, even though the letter just states positive things about the student. I completely have no idea on how this happens.

  4. Would the time to send the letter matter, e.g. before and after the program deadline? Will the letter be viewed weaker or even not counted if I send the letter after deadline?

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    I am from the US, and I think the proposed phrasing in 1 sounds pretentious and it would give me a bit of a negative impression. What's most useful for foreign letters for me (from a school I don't know well) is if they can compare the student and/or rigor of the undergrad program to some place I do know, e.g., this student is at least as strong as my former students who have gotten PhDs at [...].
    – Kimball
    Commented Jan 8 at 13:53
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    @Kimball haha yeah. Don't use #1. Only shills and magazine articles write like that.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jan 8 at 21:57
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    For question #4, it is certainly the case that submitting your letter after the deadline can be damaging to a student's prospects. You should always endeavor to submit them on time. Commented Jan 10 at 13:02
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    Writing as a comment because it's a different jurisdiction, but Germany is famous for its secret code in reference letters, partly because they must be strictly positive by law.
    – BoppreH
    Commented Jan 10 at 14:11
  • This doesn't merit an entire answer but for your 4th point: of course the time matters and letters sent after the deadline are not counted! That's the whole point of a deadline: things need to be done before it, and anything that happens afterwards is irrelevant. If the letter needs to come before date X and you send it after date X, then that is the same as not having sent the letter at all.
    – terdon
    Commented Jan 10 at 16:06

10 Answers 10

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Here's a possible strategy. Acknowledge the potential difficulty recommending across cultures - something like

Rereading my letter, I am concerned that I have used too few superlatives describing [student] for this position in the United States. The custom here in [country] is to write less expansively. I want you to know that this letter is the strongest recommendation I could possibly write for a program here.

Just putting the idea out there. Not sure it's a good one.

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    My previous supervisor, who worked both in the US and the UK, used a similar disclaimer when writing LoRs for US groups.
    – Ottie
    Commented Jan 8 at 12:22
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    Great idea. One might even put the last sentence in bold face or use some other form of emphasis, to minimize the risk of people not reading to the end. Commented Jan 9 at 9:04
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    Or... if you are worried that people may not read this at the end, put it at the beginning.
    – David
    Commented Jan 10 at 0:21
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I think a good way to clearly indicate that this student is great (as opposed to just good) is to first give some ranking of how good you think they are. "In a class with X undergraduates and Y graduates, this student ranked #z". Then, you can give specific examples of how they excelled; they were inquisitive, always seeking to improve, etc.

For research it could be done similarly. "This student was (one of) the most productive undergraduate research students I have ever had (at doing mathematics, at analyzing data, at running experiments, etc.)." Or even stronger: "this student was more productive than many graduate students I have worked with...". And then give specific examples of what they accomplished.

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    Out of context, I would interpret "this student was more productive than many graduate students I have worked with..." as damning with faint praise. Saying "many" would apply even if the student was less productive than average.
    – Brian
    Commented Jan 8 at 14:09
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    Brian, I think we are to assume this person is an undergraduate so saying they are already better than many graduate students is strong.
    – Dawn
    Commented Jan 8 at 14:41
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    This is a great answer. Informal rankings are very informative. It puts into perspective the tone of the rest of the letter. This is important especially if the writer is not culturally predisposed to heap on praise, which is quite common in the US. Even if the tone is reserved, but the writer notes this student was among the top 5%, then that is very useful information.
    – R1NaNo
    Commented Jan 8 at 15:19
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    @Dawn: Thanks, that makes sense. I missed that part of the context. Bad reading comprehension by me.
    – Brian
    Commented Jan 8 at 15:30
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Being from one of the Asian countries currently in the US, I hope my perspective will help. I would use plain language (not complex words and sentences) and definately use “strongly support”, “very proud to write this support letter”, “delighted to provide a reference supporting their application” or something similar to show you have strongly and positively supported the student. Besides using these languages, I suggest describing work/evidence of students that impressed you. For example, supported in research, making work efficient, talent of students that impressed you, critical thinking ability, skills, or something that impressed you to write such a compelling letter. Writing such a detailed letter with a few examples that impressed you will help without giving the impression that you are exaggerating students' abilities. I hope this helps.

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I don't have a ton of experience writing letters of recommendation but I have asked for many and seen how many are received. It is true that in the US, at least at the institutions I have attended or worked at, that an "okay" letter is often taken as a poor letter. Usually because the assumption is that the writer is being polite and is offering empty platitudes instead of outright saying the student is mediocre (or worse).

"Just" good letters (or letters that are overly conservative) usually get skimmed and the box ticked - that is they neither help nor hurt anyone.

It sounds like you want to write a great letter though. That is a bit of an art (I've worked with people who wrote great letters and others who didn't despite their best efforts). The letters I have read that have stood out usually have a couple of key aspects 1) the letter writer clearly knows the student well 2) they have concrete examples of success and/or measurable comparisons to other students 3) they are written enthusiastically.

The first two should are relatively easy in the sense that when you have those things, the letter tends to write itself. Feel free to ask the student what they think their strengths are, what memorable moments in the lab/class they had, and anything they want you to highlight. These make good bullet points to weave together.

The third point is a bit of a style thing. Using stronger language is a start, but there is no need to write a cloying letter. Just be mindful that the way you normally write might need to be turned up a notch or two.

To answer your third point directly, this is what I meant by an "okay" letter. A writer may be obligated to provide something, or they may want the person gone (which requires them to be accepted elsewhere), or they may just not want to hurt any feelings by being upfront and saying they cannot write a strong letter. Letters like this are usually generic and dry. If it reads like the writer didn't put effort into it or wasn't enthusiastic, even if the letter says nothing explicitly bad, an admissions committee will read between the lines. As long as you make an effort to do the three things above, I doubt you'll run into this issue.

As for your last question, when the letters are due is program dependant. I would just double check with the student what the program wants - it's on them to know but you also shouldn't assume. I don't really know why you would intentionally send the letter late though. It would not weaken the letter necessarily, it just might not be accepted. In fact, there is a chance the application as a whole will be tossed.

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    For the last question, I would not deliberately do so -- just sometime student could send a request 1-2 days before the deadline, I will still try my best to send on time. Commented Jan 8 at 6:11
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    "they may want the person gone (which requires them to be accepted elsewhere)" -- this doesn't seem applicable to OP's situation. An undergraduate completing their degree leaves the university by default, whether they have been accepted to a graduate program or not.
    – nanoman
    Commented Jan 8 at 17:14
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Here's my quick advice.

  1. Begin by stating how you met the person.
  2. List facts first. This can include achievements, what they did, how difficult that was, how much initiative they showed (e.g. they contacted you to discuss this long-open question, etc.). Make clear how very difficult the achievements were. This can and, if at all possible, should be kept in a factual, almost dry tone; let the facts speak. You can save your enthusiasm for the final concluding remarks.
  3. Then list more general points and scientific personality traits. Again, keep it factual.
  4. Some places like to compare performance in your group or with respect to given cohorts. If that helps, you can use it. I personally do not like to do that, as I was lucky to have in my group or work with some absolutely outstanding people, which however are outstanding in different "dimensions" so to speak and thus are quite incomparable with respect to each other. However, if the candidate you have in mind is indeed a clear #1 or a clear one percenter amongst the people you compare them with, this is an expressive statement you could/should include.
  5. After you made a strong case with the facts, you can do a summation and here, you can emphasize the strength of your conviction to get them. Explain what both institution and candidate would gain from each other (I find this motivation is useful for them to judge whether they would like to have this person on location). Don't write "it would be your tremendous loss", that sounds almost like a threat. Much better it is to say that (but only if it's true) you would have liked to employ the candidate yourself.
  6. There are all kinds of codes to indicate strength of a candidate, but you need to check websites with the target country to ultimately see examples for strong recommendations are. However, starting with the factual achievements never goes amiss. It permits the committee to judge for themselves how to read your recommendation.
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Write objective statements.

Most of the things you are worrying about are because you are using vague language, like the difference between "support" and "wholeheartedly support". Those are subjective terms capable of differing meanings even within a single culture. Writing that you "support" them is in itself vague, as you might be supporting them for many reasons other than their skill and capability. The committee is not wanting to know if you "support" the student, they want to know if they will be good.

Write statements like the following:

  • This student was one of the N best in their class of M.
  • I believe this student has easily enough skills and ability to complete a PhD in your institution.
  • I believe this student is capable of an outstanding academic career.
  • I have no hesitation in recommending this student as a PhD candidate.
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    In principle, I agree with the sentiment, but it's better to also emphasize actual achievements rather than only projecting into the future. Commented Jan 9 at 13:16
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Write either (1) that you will yourself make an offer to the student, or (2) that you wish you could hire the student, but there is some reason (detail it!) you cannot.

If you don't do either of these, readers will wonder why you're not trying to get the student for yourself. The reason for (2) could be lack of funding, the student's desire to not stay in your country, etc.

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    Those are good things to write, but it’s certainly not true in my experience that “if you don’t … readers will wonder why you’re not …” Plenty of very strong letters of rec don’t happen to use that particular phrasing.
    – PLL
    Commented Jan 8 at 23:01
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Just to add to some other fine answers -- we get a TON of applications from international students, and it's not always easy for admissions committees to assign applicants to the category they belong in. Your letter can help with this in ways you might find surprising.

When a US resident from a US college applies to a program, chances are very good that the school will be recognized. If not, it's not hard to find school rankings and the like.

International applicants can't be assured that the evaluators will understand what type of school the applicant is coming from. Is it a fantastic school? Is it a mediocre school? Who knows?? So, we tend to take applications from schools we know, or have heard of, or where we have colleagues who can tell us the reputation of the school.

That's an extra step, though. If there's a whole pile of international applications from schools people know of, offers might tend to skew toward those schools.

So, while you're telling the evaluators critical stuff about how you came to know the student, how long you've known the student, how stellar the student is, how you endorse the applicant "without reservation", how you'd make the same recommendation for admission for this student at your own school, ..., try to add a sentence or two explaining the reputation of the school the applicant comes from.

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You have some good answers here already, but I would simply add that you are correct to be skeptical, and that superlatives in particular tend to be a mistake, unless they are clearly genuine. But they can usually be easily amended from something like "the best" to "one of the best".

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As a non-American, I also tend to write a bit more subdued letter. Here is a method that I found works good at improving letters.

Write a letter without overthinking it. Then ask Chat-GTP to improve it. It gave me several good pointers (as in make this precise, or give an example) as well as suggesting some changes to make some statements stronger (by using better words). Sometimes, it might just be some additional vocabulary that's needed.

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